The “monomyth” of the Hero’s Journey, the path a character goes to become the hero of the story and savior of (insert size of geography here), is one that’s getting brought up quite a bit, usually as pet character syndrome and token representation seem to have ignored this so that they’re beloved doesn’t appear weak. However, there is another journey that doesn’t get mentioned enough, the path to villainy. I say it doesn’t get mentioned but there are writers to seem to be more interested in how a character turns evil than turns good. The usual line is that villains are more fun to write or perform because absence of morality means they get to act out in all those fantastic ways the proverbial “we” want to. Not being part of that “we” I heavily disagree but that’s another topic.
Recently the Literature Devil posted a video about the “Villain’s Journey”, who zags where the hero zigs and becomes evil. It’s a fascinating video and I would have made it a daily quickpost but there’s one aspect of this comparison of heroes and villains, most notably Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as well as Batman and the Joker, that I don’t think he really got into. While he does a good job exploring when the two parings have different responses to temptation but not really as much into why they made those choices. Namely I want to focus on the forming of the hero’s conscience…and the villain’s lack of same, and how that played a role. And it comes from their various life stories.
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Now I’m not as well versed in MacBeth because while I acknowledge Willy S. as a great writer the types of stories he tells usually doesn’t interest me personally. There’s a particular joke from an episode of Growing Pains discussing Romeo And Juliet that sums it up nicely: “Okay, where were we?” “Everyone’s dead.” When it comes to the other two big examples however, I can track the reasons each character made the choice they made and this is an important factor in what separates a hero’s journey from a villain’s.
The Joker is harder to pin down because his origin is, in his own words, “multiple choice”, and well should be. Lacking an origin is in tune with his role in the mythology of Batman, as Professor Geek would state. He’s chaos to Batman’s order. Random unpredictability, showmanship, slapstick as a murder weapon–everything you’d expect from an evil clown. (Thanks to him I haven’t seen a hero clown in comics since Funnyman in the 1940s unless you count DC hero The Creeper.) But going by the two origins everyone thinks they know (because Todd Philips is anti-comics and anti-superheroes so his namesake doesn’t count) you can track why he went crazy by getting his skin bleached. (Is it sad that my favorite Batman/Joker fight is with Terry and not Bruce?)
Going by The Killing Joke we have a pre-Joker struggling as a comedian and to maintain his life, making his wife happy and making something of himself. However, everything spirals further and further out of control until that acid bath. In the case of the Tim Burton version Jack Napier thought he had control of everything as he was the (breathe) #1 (breathe) guy to the top mob boss in Gotham City while still sleeping with the boss’s wife. Then the boss finds out and sets him up for a fall, which would benefit his police mole’s reputation in bringing down Grissom’s #1 and get rid of the guy bopping his wife. In both cases all that sought after control is lost, so now the Joker is a man out of control, bringing as much madness to the world as was dropped on him in one night. Contrary to what Joker says in The Killing Joke it wasn’t “one bad day” that brought him down but the conclusion in a series of bad days, with no evidence of what Bruce Wayne was given and leading him down the path of darkness. Then again both origins are BS.
Bruce on the other hand had one bad day when he was a child. Some children bounce back and others don’t depending on the child and the situation. In this case Bruce watched his parents get shot in front of him, unable to do anything about it because he was about nine years old. His training then was all about learning how to do something about it, to try to keep someone else from experiencing what he did, especially children but today’s kid-hating writers ignore that part. Instead of going psycho on crime he works within the law to a fault, does not kill because he respects human life, and sees the best in people.
There are two reasons why: his parents and his butler. Unless you’re a Telltale Games writer Thomas and Martha Wayne were good people who worked to make Gotham a better place. Thomas was a doctor, Martha was heavy into charity work. Bruce grew up with the influence of loving parents who used their combined wealth to help others, something Bruce himself would do outside of the cape and cowl by giving to charities that would benefit Gotham’s citizens, especially orphans and helping the police department be able to afford to hire less corrupt cops. He even gives jobs to some of the henchmen he takes down in the hopes a steady job will make them less inclined to return to villainy. When they died, Alfred showed him the same love and compassion, noted in the Spider-Man And Batman comic where he mentions having Alfred was part of what saved him. There were also the fictional influences growing up. They had just come out of a Zorro movie and the DCAU also made him a fan of a Shadow-type hero called The Grey Ghost, which was one of the influences for Batman’s career. At every crossroads Bruce was exposed to better people and seeing the good in others, something that we don’t see in any version of the Joker, not even Phillip’s namesake version.
Now when it comes to Darth Vader and son we have a stronger view of both character’s backstories and why one would succumb to the Dark Side, one would refuse it, and even why Vader would eventually have a death bed reform of sorts. (Seeing as the reform is what put him on his death bed. Or floor.) It’s easy to see why not when you look at his journey, then contrast it with his son’s.
Anakin Skywalker was born into slavery. While he appeared to be excitable and positive you can still see there’s a darker…side…to his personality. Sorry, it just came out that way. All he wanted was to get his mother out of slavery. He loved his mother and she was a positive influence on him. And yet look at what he goes through. The only way to win enough money for their freedom is take part in a dangerous form of racing that’s essentially a motorcycle hooked up to a pair of jet engines. The only reason he agrees to go with Qui-Jong Jin is that he might be able to rescue his mother someday and get to become a Jedi, something he’s only heard about until these strangers arrive. The Jedi are these mighty warriors who help people. Surely he’ll finally save his mom!
Yeah…that didn’t go very well.
While he’s gone his mother is killed, supposedly by Sandpeople, who he then murders in revenge…not the last time he’ll go after children, either. The difference is this time he’s upset by his own actions. As Luke says, there is still good in him. Meanwhile the Jedi Council, who already had to be forced to accept him, aren’t the most compassionate people in the galaxy due to their belief in controlling emotions on a level only a Vulcan would surpass. And even they get to have spouses. Anakin seeks love and affection, which he finds with Padme, especially after he loses his mom. All he had throughout the Clone Wars otherwise was his mentor and best friend Obi-Wan and his own Padawan, Ashoka. Oh, and also Palpatine, the kind of politician the Jedi were worried about when it came to Anakin’s “friendship” with Padme. Paply is there whispering in his ear, manipulating his emotions all while the Council is both concerned about him and treating him like Force Jesus. Anakin is all about protecting the people he loves, especially his secret wife, but because it is a secret he can’t talk to anyone but the manipulator about his visions of Padme’s death. Thus, while trying to save Padme he ends up doing the exact thing the visions were trying to warn him away from. Before then he already became disgruntled with the Council not only for his treatment but their terrible series of responses when Asoka was falsely accused of a bombing, leading to her opting not to accept their non-apology and leaving. Feeling betrayed by pretty much everybody and now standing alone, Anakin eventually becomes Darth Vader, but still attempts a last-ditch effort to save Padme…only to be the one to kill her.
Luke on the other hand had a better VPN…wait, that was an ad. No, what I meant was Luke had the total opposite of his father’s life when he reached the same temptation point: total power or his own morals. Luke was brought up by his loving aunt and uncle in poverty but in freedom. The moisture collecting farm, a necessity in the desert where water is scarce, offered some income or at least a way for them to survive. Where the Jedi were a legend to Luke, Anakin saw first hand the flaws covered by the hype, thanks in part to Palpatine’s exaggerations and misdirection but also the group’s own mistakes, especially when it came to the aforementioned frame job and Mace’s spin job about “it was the will of the Force” without admitting any mistakes. Other media around the time also mentioned the Jedi would take kids from their parents if they were strong enough in the Force. Luke only knew the hype and, like with Bruce and the Grey Ghost or Zorro, admired them and wanted to live up to them, especially when he learned his father was a great war hero.
He did want to leave Tatooine and see the universe by joining the Academy but his uncle tried to keep him away from those kind of adventures, worried he’d follow his father’s path. Before Lucas decided Anakin WAS Vader was best for the story, Anakin’s journey still lead to being killed by Vader. After Lucas made this revelation the path that led Anakin to become Vader was still one Uncle Owen wouldn’t want for his grandnephew. Luke was devoted to his surrogate parents. He could have said “the heck with you, I’m joining the Academy with my friends” since he was old enough but he was loyal to them and when Owen demanded he stay, Luke did…or would have if not for what happened next. With his farm destroyed and his family dead there was nothing left for Luke here and so he agreed to go with Obi-Wan to seek adventure, help someone in need, and learn more about his father and this mysterious all-powerful Force.
Mind you it’s not just his family growing up or on his journey. Throughout his life up to the battle on Death Star II, Luke was surrounded by the love and compassion Anakin never really got. His friends on Tatooine like Biggs, his new mentor, and when Obi-Wan was killed Luke still had Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2, 3-PO, and later Lando. When he met Yoda, it was a Yoda who saw the Jedi fall and maybe his time on Dagobah tempered his wisdom a bit, not following the same mistakes that led to the victory of the Sith. Where Vader misread his vision, Luke followed it, even when it led to incomplete training and learning his father’s true fate. I find it odd that Luke didn’t at least make return trips to Dagobah in between Rebel missions or the quest to rescue Han from Jabba, since there was time for Luke to complete his training at some point between movies. Yoda says as much, though Luke would be the last Jedi…okay, sidebar.
Luke’s fall in The Last Jedi was an example of bad subversion. Good subversion still gives the viewers, especially fans, something they want to see. Instead we never got to see the heroes we loved come together one last time, didn’t get to see a proper passing of the torch to a new generation, and instead we got a Luke whose fall rings so very hollow. The only good defense (as in something other than calling critics “toxic manbaby neckbeard fanboy racist woman-haters”) I’ve seen of Luke’s fall came from Linkara during his review of the comic adaptation. The error however comes from how they did it. Having a hero not live up to his previous victory, which again is not what Luke’s fans wanted to see, is one thing. However, Luke’s reaction to the vision of his nephew being tempted by the Dark Side was to consider taking a lightsaber to him all the way up to actually standing over him with it lit? Preposterous! Luke risked his own life (and in a way the galaxy) to rescue his father, a man who had committed so much evil before and after his cybernetic remake that he alone saw good in him and eventually reformed him. Somewhere in there was the man who wanted to rescue his mother and then his wife, who sought to protect his friends and family…and failed every time. It makes no sense therefore that the moment he saw a hint of grandpa he’d break out the slashing stick.
What would have worked better is for Luke to have become OVERprotective of Ben, trying to lead him away, but his smothering ended up driving Ben to Snoke. It still wouldn’t have been what fans wanted but at least Rian Johnson’s subversion would have made more sense to Luke’s character growth and previous character arc. It’s not that Luke failed, it’s that he was given the wrong failure.
Okay, back on topic. Luke succeeded in rescuing (most of) his family and was surrounded by the love Anakin didn’t. And so when Luke was in the same situation as Anakin was with Dooku made the opposite decision, driven not by anger but by love. Even Bruce Wayne becomes Batman not because of his pain and anger but his love for Gotham and wanting to live up to his parents’ ideals. In the same way Luke was living up to his father’s former ideals. “I am a Jedi, as my father was before me.” Luke had a view of what that meant and even after learning Anakin was Vader decided to live up to those ideals, to be better than his hero, which led to him reforming his hero. Meanwhile both Joker and Vader succumbed to their darker natures, lacking that same love and support network that Bruce and Luke had, but while Anakin used to have some idea of what good is, the Joker may not have, or the acid bath warped his mind to the point that he no longer remembers all of that. There have been moments of sanity where he regrets his actions in some Elseworlds type stories so maybe he was a good man once. Maybe he wasn’t like the Burton and the DCAU versions. (We also see him as a mob thug in Mask Of The Phantasm.)
What separates the hero from the villain when faced with the same temptation is love and conscience. Just as Jesus Christ resisted the Devil…sorry, LD…and his temptation through love of his Heavenly Father and his desire to lead God’s creation back to their Creator, so too does Batman resist the abyss of going the Jean-Paul Valley Batman route of just kill ’em all just as Luke resists ending Vader and taking over his power, seeing what his dad became. In fact, Jean-Paul is like Vader in that aspect, the path not taking and result of it. I mean, look at Valley’s Batsuit. I think the point has been made though. Everyone is tempted now and then. It’s the reaction to it that makes a hero but it’s the why that’s part of the journey.